The rewards of a simpler lifestyle

Joanne G


I didn’t know Joanne Gunning when she was another person, and I’m not sure I would have liked her then.

In any event, she probably wouldn’t have had much time for me — unless I were a paying client. To hear her tell it, she was all business: a tax accountant working for a major firm of chartered accountants in Kingston.

She was a workaholic. « I saw it as the key to success,’’ she says. « Somehow I’d got to the point that I was defined by my career and my status.

« I thought my goals had to be about making lots of money, having a big house and a big expensive car, and taking lots of holidays — and (said with an infectious chuckle) making sure everybody knew about it.

« But I was losing my sense of myself. I was too tired to cook; I had no time for myself; I almost never got outdoors.’’ And the environment was way down on her list of priorities. « If I was too tired, I didn’t bother to recycle and everything went into the garbage.’’

The person sitting across from me last week was different, relishing conversation, telling anecdotes, curious and diminutive and bushy-tailed, like the quick red squirrels that dart about our bird feeder.

These days, she is a retirement planner, a shift she made eight years ago « to get a little sanity in my life.’’

But it was a handyman, a handicapped person that she and her husband hired four years ago to do maintenance work, who inspired a more complete change in lifestyle.

« What I admired most, was his ability to have a really rich life, without having to have all the things our society thinks we should have, ‘’ she says. « He had no credit card, no house, no car. He got by on $10,000 to $12,000 a year, and lived a simple life filled with books, music, and nature. He’s the best read person I’ve ever met.

« He’s the one who taught me how to tell a red oak from a white oak. Who showed me that when you’re in such a hurry to get nowhere, you can’t see what’s around you. He was the one who encouraged me to go back to walking in the woods. He made the woods feel like home again.

« And now I feel like the 15-year-old I was back in Lac St. Jean (in the Saguenay region of eastern Quebec) — like a 49-year-old tomboy again. I’m starting to know what makes me happy, and it’s a lot simpler than I thought.

« I  spend time with friends. I take time to celebrate nature. I get out in the woods once a week.’’

And she’s beginning to examine how she can shift her buying patterns to help people in the Third World. For instance, she’s learned that if she buys fair-trade, shade-grown coffee, she ensures that workers in coffee fields get fairly paid, and that the environment benefits because forests are not cut down to make way for coffee plants. Instead, plants are interspersed among trees.

So now that she’s looking, seeing is expanding.

To gain time for herself, she has limited her clientele, « but not the service I give them.’’ And she’s discovered that I don’t need as much money as I thought I needed to have a good life.’’ In fact, she’s cut her spending by 15 per cent, and has moved to a downscale car that gets much better mileage.

« What I’m trying to do more and more in my life, is to get a little serenity.’’ And so, another thing she has turned to is a garden« I thought that once I got my hands in dirt, the answers would start to come again. Gardening makes you take time to look at your life. It’s quiet time, and our society doesn’t give you much of that.

When you’re a workaholic, you’re mostly alone, she says. « The price of a lot of money is time.’’ In her garden, she feels a sense of companionship, although she hasn’t yet articulated what that means.

And in the woods, she feels she’s among friends. « I know that sounds corny,’’ she says. « But there’s something humbling about going up to an old oak tree that’s been around since before Confederation and saying, `Hi.’’’ Plants do have something to teach us, she adds.

I didn’t think she sounded corny at all. I thought she sounded like a person who was finding her place in the universe.

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